Back when I was teaching fiction writing, I used to pitch my students, especially the beginners, on complexity.
They seemed to think that readers would be attracted to their characters’ virtue and would recognize shared humanity in their strength and courage; I argued — perversely they thought — that unrelenting virtue is not just unrealistic but uninteresting.
Gatsby, I reminded them, is a damned fool who falls in love with a woman unworthy of his affection. Because he’s blind, he does everything wrong, and we sympathize because we, too, have been blind and done things wrong.
Granted, Huck Finn is an innocent, uncorrupted (as yet) by a depraved world, but he’s never more interesting than when he’s convinced of his own depravity. We like him right from the start, but when he says, “Okay, I’ll go to hell” — that’s when we fall in love.
For most people, mine is a losing argument, and one night recently, as I stayed up watching television coverage of Eliot Spitzer’s disgrace, I found myself losing it all over again as the media turned a complex drama into a simple story line: Now that he’s no longer their unsullied white knight, Spitzer must be a complete hypocrite. Later, I lay awake in the dark thinking about how a novel about Eliot Spitzer might go and what kind of novel it would be.
My fictional Eliot would be complex, would contain paradoxes. He would not be a hypocrite. My Eliot would believe with his whole heart in his crusades against the corrupt and the powerful and the privileged, even as he worked studiously to undermine his legacy. Fiction can accommodate such paradoxes, provided they’re explained.
But I don’t mean to jigger the facts; fictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught. And when he does occasionally consider the possibility, he trusts that there will be ample warning that disaster is imminent.
For the most part, things in his life have happened slowly, especially the good things, and he trusts that bad things will evolve similarly. He will swerve at the last moment. The possibility of a head-on collision, swift and devastating, simply never occurs to him.
Even worse, though he knows that the world doesn’t work this way, he convinces himself that if he’s caught, people will treat him fairly. Sure, he has shamed himself, but he’s done a lot of good things, too, and people will remember that. He has always employed a kind of moral arithmetic, and he’ll expect that same math to be applied to him — all his virtues set up on one side of the ledger, his one weakness on the other.
People will understand that he’s mostly good. By the time my Eliot realizes that he’s wrong about all this, it’s too late. The damage is done. He has betrayed his wife, his children, his best self, and it’s all his fault.
Okay, that’s my thumbnail fictional Eliot; a little thin, and maybe I like him too much. Not giving his nasty, righteous streak enough play. It’s possible I’m giving him more credit than God would, but then God has the advantage of knowing what Eliot and I are still trying to figure out. I’ll learn more as I write, but there are other characters to consider.
First, Eliot’s wife — and here I sense a mystery even deeper than the mystery of Eliot himself. Why does she stand there beside him at the podium when he confesses? Why do they all? I feel uniquely unqualified to look inside her heart, to ferret out her motives. I make a list of what I know (not much) and what I suspect (not much more) and wonder whether imagination will fill in all those blanks.
I’m relatively certain of one thing: It’s not this woman’s fault. I won’t portray her as frigid or otherwise complicit in what has transpired. She hasn’t driven Eliot to any of this. I don’t believe in perfection, but I’ve decided for the time being that she’s been a good wife, a good mother.
What I know about marriage is that identities over time tend to merge. Eliot’s wife was once her own person, but down the years she’s lost some of that individuality, surrendered it willingly, never suspecting she might have further use for it. If she’s not this man’s wife, then who is she? Worse, can she abandon her husband without implying that her daughters should do the same to their father? And what was that promise that she made? For better or for worse? Did she mean that or just say it? How could it be that she was able to imagine the better so vividly, the worse not at all? Was that his fault for leaving so few clues, or hers for ignoring the few there were? The facts of her situation are simple and clear. Why aren’t her emotions?
Why won’t they stand still so she can examine them?
And what of those daughters? This is the hardest part for my Eliot.
What really tears him apart is that when the news breaks, these girls are going to have to go to school. He sees them in his mind’s eye now and can think of little else. Sees them alone and isolated, all the other kids talking about them, growing silent when his girls walk into the room. This won’t go on forever, but to them it will seem like forever.
Eliot also fears that he’s done them long-term damage. Some of it can be repaired. They’re good, smart girls, and they won’t grow up hating all men. But their innocence has fled; they look at him now like a man wearing a partially removed disguise. Never again will they take anything on faith.
They will be cautious in the living of their lives, taking nothing at face value. They’ll brace for impact when there’s no reason. He could have spared them all this, yet managed not to.
The novel’s getting pretty dark, and that worries me. Time for a little comic relief. Real-life Eliot has few friends, we’re told, the natural result of what some people like to call his arrogance, though my Eliot has never thought of it in those terms until now. Arrogant? He’d simply tried to put criminals in jail where they belonged. Wasn’t that his job? Is that any reason he should be friendless now? So I’ll give my Eliot one friend, someone to help him put what he’s done into perspective.
I’ll give this friend some of my own cynical humor. Ah, what the hell, I’ll give him my name. Call him Rick. I can change that later with a keystroke.
Before everything begins to unravel, Eliot confides to Rick that he’s made a mess of things, betrayed everyone he loves, that he isn’t even sure who he is anymore. But Rick will tell him not to be melodramatic.
It’s true that he’s made mistakes, big ones, Rick explains, but they aren’t what Eliot thinks they are. Rick admits he’s outraged that Eliot has spent $80,000 on prostitutes, because it shouldn’t cost that much to get a little action in America.
It’s like one of those $500 Pentagon hammers. Downright wasteful. And why order a hammer from New Jersey and pay the shipping? There are perfectly good hammers in Washington — it’s a damned city of hammers, when you think about it.
Where on earth did Eliot get the idea that New Jersey hammers were superior? All he wanted to do was nail something, right?
Don’t joke, Eliot tells Rick. This isn’t funny; he could go to jail. But to Rick’s way of thinking, that’s the biggest joke of all. Your average CEO can claim millions in salary and stock options in the same year his company is going down the tubes, and it’s all perfectly legal.
You want to know what you’re really guilty of, Eliot? Cluelessness. You didn’t forget who you are, you forgot where you are. This is America, pal, where you can lead the nation into war on false pretenses and be rewarded with a second term in office, but where illicit sex is and has always been an impeachable offense. (Note to self: A little of this Rick character goes a long way.)
How will my Eliot’s story end? Do I wait for real-life events to unfold or make something up? What kind of story will it be? A tragedy? Maybe, but somehow I don’t think so.
My Eliot’s no Gatsby, and there’s no reason he should wind up floating face-down in the pool. What he’s really done is blown it. He’s had a great opportunity, and he’s blown it. There will be both private and public consequences.
He will be punished, and he will punish himself. He will survive. So will his family. People do. What is the basis for such breezy optimism? Well, for one, there’s historical precedent. Hillary Clinton wasn’t done in by her knucklehead husband.
I wouldn’t pretend to know what’s in her heart, but she’s clearly functioning. And Chelsea, God love her, seems to have weathered the effects of her old man’s late-onset adolescence.
Sure, there are other stories I could spin around the skeletal facts as we know them.
For instance, there’s a compelling story in which Eliot isn’t so much a man as a condition common to men, especially middle-aged men, none of whom seems able to keep it in his pants. Eliot just does what they all do.
Thanks to a mountain of evidence, I could make this story work, and it might be more satisfying to female readers, who could draw on personal experience to further enrich the tale.
There’s also a story in which Eliot isn’t even the main character.
Because how believable is it, really, that they came across him by chance on that wiretap? His many enemies are justly famous as the dirtiest of tricksters. Maybe I should be writing a thriller, but I dislike and distrust plot-driven narrative and have grown fond of my own messed-up, untidy Eliot, so American in both his ambition and the disgrace that seems to flow from it so naturally.
I might not know precisely why he’s done what he’s done, but he connects to my long-held conviction that people (in fiction, in life) aren’t meant to be saints, or to be treated like saints. That’s the hard lesson Hawthorne’s Reverend Dimmesdale learned from the pulpit.
For years now, my Eliot (himself no stranger to the pulpit) has been besieged in restaurants, on the street, everywhere, by people telling him to keep fighting the good fight because, Eliot, you’re our best hope in a world that’s as depraved as Huck Finn’s. Even his prostitutes agree — don’t they?
I cannot speak for the real Eliot, but some part of my Eliot has known all along that he’s no saint, that he’s not anybody’s best hope, not even his own. He knows this even as some other part of him believes what people are telling him because, of course, he wants to. This has been his true conflict all along, and finally, explosively, it has been resolved.
* By Richard Russo ;Sunday, March 16, 2008;
(Richard Russo’s most recent novel is “Bridge of Sighs.”)